New College of the Humanities

A Medieval Childhood: Games With Frontiers

Lucy Inglis admires Nicholas Orme’s article on medieval childhood, first published in History Today in 2001.

In Nicholas Orme’s fine essay on the nature of play and childhood in the Middle Ages he counters the assertion made by Phillippe Ariès in Centuries of Childhood (1962) that medieval childhood was a myth, that our formative years were spent as little adults, with minimal time for play. Orme focuses on the nature of children’s recreation through toys and descriptions of their games. Many of these games, such as the ‘cobnut’ and ‘cherry-stone’, recorded by Sir Thomas More, are incomprehensible to us now but represent every child’s ability to create a random set of rules around the objects to hand. The Tudor poet Alexander Barclay noted how the more inventive ‘get bladders, fill them with peas till they rattle, then use them for handball or football’. More structured games also existed, requiring specialist equipment. In 1440 Geoffrey, a Dominican monk in King’s Lynn, compiled a dictionary for schools entitled Promptorium Parvulorum, ‘a prompter for little ones’, which contains an early mention of tennis.

Tennis rackets were, presumably, supplied by adults. This is an important distinction for Orme, representing the encouragement of play by those in authority. There were some unisex toys, such as whipping tops, which appear to have been very popular, but the emergence of dolls takes us into the realm of gender-specific toys. Orme is definite that ‘girls, of course, had dolls’, although the example he uses is a religious text of 1413: ‘Children make poppets for to play with while they are young.’ Dolls’ accessories exist from the Middle Ages onwards and are predominately miniature domestic items such as jugs, ewers, plates and cups, indicating gender roles for the girls who played with them. Dolls and related objects appear to have been the only things available for girls. Most of the games and physical activities, such as swimming and fishing, are for boys only, according to Orme.

Most interesting is Orme’s focus upon the idea of play as training for war. Noble boys were given military toys by their parents, such as the miniature castle and matching siege engine belonging to Alfonso, Edward I’s son. Other royal children were given small suits of armour and arrows. The five-year-old Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII, was given a miniature bow in 1492, but it was his sister Margaret who is recorded as having shot two bucks by the time she was 14. It wasn’t only royal children who took up archery. The Statute of Cambridge of 1388 ordered all servants to give up quoits, dice, stone-casting and skittles and pursue archery instead. In 1512 the law was extended to all men with boys in their houses between seven and 17. Justices of the Peace were expected to enforce the statute and practice ‘butts’ were installed in villages and towns.

Adult control over play was not always so apparent and the training of young children for war could have unwelcome results. Shrove Tuesday football was rowdy and the audiences at cockfights frequently got out of hand. The London apprentices in particular were known for their willingness to take to the streets and fight both each other and the authorities. After the failure of Wyatt’s Rebellion in January 1554 hundreds of boys gathered in Finsbury Fields ‘to play a new game: some took Wyatt’s part and some the queen’s and made a combat in the fields’. Many were arrested and confined to the Guildhall.

The theme of play as a preparation for war continued after the Middle Ages, Orme explains. Just as the battle of Agincourt was won on the playing fields of Kenilworth, so would the lessons learned on the fields of Eton carry the day at Waterloo. By raising children to play at war an empire was nurtured. The essay begins and ends with Henry Newbolt’s famous cricket poem, Vitai Lampada, from 1908. It follows child’s play from the ‘breathless hush’ of the village team with ten to make to the river of death where honour is only a name and where ‘the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks: Play up! play up! and play the game!’

Lucy Inglis is a historian. A book based on her blog, Georgian London, will be published by Pengion in 2013.

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